Posts Tagged ‘testamentary trust’

How To Avoid Probate — And What Doesn’t

APRIL 23, 2012 VOLUME 19 NUMBER 16
Let us try to demystify probate avoidance for a moment. Note that for the purposes of this description, we are not going to argue with you about whether avoidance of probate is good, bad, desirable or a foolish goal — we start here with the assumption that probate avoidance is important. Another day, perhaps, we will discuss with you whether you ought to be concerned about probate avoidance.

Definition of terms first: probate is the court process by which your estate is settled and distributed to your heirs (if you have not made a valid will) or your devisees (if you have). Confusingly, “probate” is also the term applied (in most states) to the court where probate proceedings, guardianship, conservatorship and sometimes even civil commitment and adult adoptions are conducted. We are not talking here about how to avoid probate court altogether, but just about how to keep your estate from having to go through the probate process upon your death.

Arranged (more or less) from least desirable to most, here are some of the ways to avoid probate of your estate upon your death:

Die poor. In Arizona, an estate consisting of up to $50,000 of personal property can be collected by the people who claim to be entitled to it without the need of a probate court proceeding. The affidavit for collection of personal property is widely available and usually free. Your survivors can use it to transfer title to your auto, or to collect small bank (or other financial) accounts. The statute providing for collection of small estates also provides a mechanism for the surviving spouse to get a decedent’s last paycheck, and for beneficiaries to transfer title to real property up to another $75,000 in value. Most other states have a similar law, but with dollar limits that vary widely.

Give it all away. One sure-fire way to avoid probate: give everything to your kids (or whomever you want to receive your stuff) now. The main problem with this approach should be obvious — what if they won’t let you live in your house any more, or withhold the interest you counted on them returning to you each month? Things change: you might change your mind about leaving everything to that child, or to all your children. The child you transfer assets to might marry someone you don’t trust. Worse yet, that child might die — leaving you at the mercy of his or her spouse and children. Maybe you and the child you give your stuff to will end up disagreeing about when you need to go to a nursing home, or whether you ought to get married late in life, or even take in a roommate.

As an aside, it amazes us how often clients come to us after having given everything to their children. Things so often do not work out as planned. This is a very poor way to handle your estate planning — but it would avoid probate. We hear that those new-fangled strap-on jet packs avoid traffic jams, too — but we don’t recommend them as a means of getting to the doctors office.

Joint tenancy. People often refer to this method of holding title by its formal name: “joint tenancy with right of survivorship.” That makes the value of the title pretty clear — the surviving joint tenant(s) own the deceased joint tenant’s portion of the property upon death of one joint tenant. You can have more than two joint tenants — upon the death of any one, the survivors’ interests all increase. We liken this arrangement to a tontine — a lovely idea that combines the best elements of estate planning and lotteries.

Lawyers generally discourage the use of joint tenancy in estate planning. The problems are less obvious than simply giving away your stuff, but they are still real. You might later decide that the child you established the joint tenancy with should get a larger or smaller share of your estate — but the joint tenancy is always, by definition, an equal ownership interest with all the other joint tenants. People who favor joint tenancy as an alternative to good estate planning invariably, in our experience, seem to think it would be OK to name just one child as joint tenant, and to trust her (or him) to divide the property among siblings. That often works just fine — but it often leads to family disputes when the children have different expectations or understandings.

Other problems with joint tenancy: you subject your property to the creditors, spouses and business partners of the child you put on your title. You lose the power to refinance your home, to cash out your certificate of deposit, or to liquidate your government bonds — more accurately, you lose the power to do those things unless your joint tenant will also go to the title company or the bank with you and sign willingly.

Lawyers tend to dislike joint tenancy, except in one circumstance. Many people own their property in joint tenancy with spouses (homes are especially likely to be titled in that fashion), and we lawyers generally think that is alright. In Arizona, there is another alternative between spouses that we like a little better: community property with right of survivorship. That conveys some income tax benefits to a surviving spouse while still avoiding the necessity of any probate on the first spouse’s death.

Beneficiary designations. You probably have a beneficiary (maybe multiple beneficiaries) named on your life insurance policy, on any annuities you have been talked into buying, and on your retirement account (if there is any death benefit included). Did you know that you can do the same thing with bank accounts, stocks and bonds, and even (in Arizona and a handful of other states) real estate?

  • POD (payable on death) bank accounts — you can designate a POD beneficiary (some banks use the acronym ITF — “in trust for” — and it means the exact same thing) who has no current interest in your account but receives it automatically upon your death. You can even name multiple POD beneficiaries. And you can do this at banks, credit unions, savings and loans. Caution: if you go to your bank and say “I heard that there’s a way I can put my son’s name on my bank account” the clerk will almost always hand you a joint tenancy signature card. Make clear that you’re talking about POD designations — they are used less commonly but are a better fit for most people.
  • TOD (transfer on death) for stocks and bonds — there is a designation similar to the bank POD account for stocks, bonds, brokerage accounts and mutual funds. It is usually referred to by its acronym, TOD. It is actually more flexible than the POD designation available to banks — it allows you to designate what happens if a TOD beneficiary should die before you, for instance. Talk to your stockbroker about this titling arrangement if you think it might be a good idea for you — but talk to your lawyer first.
  • Beneficiary deeds for real estate — this one is available in only about a dozen states, but Arizona is one of those. It is like a POD or TOD designation for real estate — including your home. It only works on real estate located in Arizona or one of the other beneficiary deed states. The beneficiary deed conveys no current interest in your property, but avoids probate and vests directly in your beneficiary upon recording of your death certificate. You and your spouse can, for example, own your home as community property with rights of survivorship but upon the second death automatically transfer to your children in equal shares (with provisions about what happens if one of them should not survive both of you) upon the second death. We have written about beneficiary deeds in Arizona before, and our earlier explanations are still valid (even though our newsletter style has been updated).

What’s wrong with these beneficiary-based devices? Two things, at least: (1) they don’t provide for what happens if you make life changes that effectively adjust your estate plan (if, for instance, you live off of one account that was to go to one or two children, and thereby reduce their share of the estate) and (2) they make it hard to change your estate plan (if you decide to disinherit a child, for instance, you have to make sure to change all of the operative documents and titles). But in the right circumstance, beneficiary designations can effectively transfer your estate without probate — they act as a sort of a “poor man’s” trust.

Trusts. Which gets us to the most efficient way to avoid probate for most people — the living trust. To be clear, the trust doesn’t really avoid probate at all — but your trust assets do not have to go through the probate process and so anything you have transferred during life to the trust will avoid probate. It is the “funding” of the trust that avoids probate, not the trust itself.

So there you have it. Probate avoidance in a nutshell. But wait — what’s not on that list? Did you notice? There is so much confusion about the missing item, which does not avoid probate:

Making a will. Preparing and signing your will is a good thing to do. It avoids intestate succession, which might not be right for you. It designates who will be appointed by the court to act as your personal representative. It can name the person who will be your children’s (or your incapacitated spouse’s) guardian. It can even create a trust. But it does not avoid probate.

Your will is instead instructions to the probate court. It has no effect unless and until it is admitted to probate, which another way of saying that a court has determined that it really is your last will. Clients frequently say: “thank goodness I’ve signed my will today. Now I can sleep better knowing my children won’t have to go through probate.” We say: “sit down. We have some more talking to do. Obviously we have failed to get you to understand the distinction between wills and probate avoidance.” Then we talk about living trusts.

Did that help? Do you have a better idea for probate avoidance (we’ve left a couple of less common methods off)? We’d love to hear from you.

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EINs for Trusts: The Questions Just Keep Pouring In

APRIL 16, 2012 VOLUME 19 NUMBER 15
Tax ID numbers for trusts. When we first wrote about this topic, we did not appreciate how interested our readers would be. We thought that the issue was sort of dry, actually, and that most people would have asked their lawyer or their accountant for direction. It has become one of the most enduringly popular topics at the Fleming & Curti, PLC, website.

Imagine our surprise. The questions just keep coming. We can’t and don’t try to answer them all individually — we are not here to give free legal advice based on incomplete information, and most of the questions leave out at least some of the detail we would need. But we do find your questions instructive for purposes of figuring out the level of interest — and confusion — out there.

Here are a few of the questions we have gotten (edited for space, or to focus the question on the area we want to answer). Please, please, please remember that we are not trying to give specific legal advice here — we only want to help you focus your questions for when you talk with your own lawyer, or when you find yourself arguing with the well-meaning but misinformed support person at a major mutual fund company.

My parents set up a living trust as joint trustees and used my fathers SSN Dad died, Mom survives but is incapacitated, I am the successor trustee. Do I need to get a new TIN?

The key to determining when a trust needs its own EIN (employer identification number — the correct term for a taxpayer identification number for a non-human entity) is whether or not the trust is a “grantor” trust. While your parents were both living the trust was probably revocable and for their joint benefit; it almost certainly could use one or the other parent’s Social Security Number as its TIN. With the death of your father, the question now is whether the trust (a) is still revocable and (b) contains money that was originally your mother’s.

For purposes of determining the trust’s revocability, we can ignore the fact that your mother may not be mentally able to revoke the trust. The test is whether she would have the legal authority to do so, were she competent to attempt it.

More importantly, if the trust consisted of your father’s property (and not joint or community property), then it may not be a grantor trust any longer. In that case it may need its own EIN.

Whether or not it needs to have its own EIN, it is permissible for you to get one. This is true because your mother is no longer the trustee. Many banks and brokerage houses think that the fact that she is not trustee makes a separate EIN mandatory; they are wrong. But there is no harm in getting one, and it might make it easier to deal with the financial industry. What the tax returns would look like in such a case is a separate question — one you probably ought to pose to the accountant who prepares the trust’s and your mother’s tax returns.

What name do you give the “new” trust created after the death of a spouse?

The most common scenario is this: husband and wife have either a joint revocable trust or reciprocal trusts. In either case, upon the death of the first spouse a separate trust is created for the benefit of the surviving spouse. This trust is irrevocable and contains assets that belonged originally to the now-deceased spouse. As we have described before, this new trust (it might be more accurate to call it a modification of the old trust, which is now irrevocable) needs its own EIN. But what is it called?

The trust document itself might give the answer. Mr. and Mrs. Jones’ trust might say something like “the share described herein shall be set aside into the Jones Family Trust Marital Sub-Trust” or “the Jones Family Decedent’s Trust.” If the document names the new (or sub-) trust, use that name. If not, we usually use language that makes clear — and helps us remember — what kind of trust it is. Perhaps “the Jones Family Trust — Decedent’s Share” is clear enough.

There is no particular magic to the language. Clarity is the key. There are no trust policemen waiting to arrest you for getting the name wrong, and sometimes it is easier to let the broker or banker win these arguments — even when they are wrong. But if you are trustee it IS important that you keep track of which funds belong to which sub-trust if there is more than one, and that you not commingle the money between trusts or, worse yet, with your own money.

I have my own revocable living trust, and I know it does not need a new EIN — it uses my Social Security Number. But I’m getting claim forms from the annuity company after my mother’s death, and they want me to have a trust EIN. The form lists the EIN in the xx-xxxxxxx format rather than xxx-xx-xxxx. Can I just put my Social Security Number in that odd format?

Yes, that is what we would do. It likely will work — not so much because there is a clearly right answer, but because there is no easy way for the annuity company to double-check. Their form is wrong to assume that all trusts have an EIN, and you are not even permitted to get an EIN for your revocable trust when you are the trustee and the original owner of all its assets. We encourage you to put your Social Security Number in the xx-xxxxxxx format and see if it works. We have done that before and it has.

I have a trust within my Will naming my son as beneficiary and directing my niece, the trustee, as to when to make distributions. Does she need a EIN?

She certainly will when you die. Until then, the trust doesn’t really exist, so there’s nothing to apply for now.

This suggests a question not really asked: what happens when you die with a will creating a trust? The first part of the answer: we will need to probate your estate. If your intention was to avoid probate by creating a trust, putting it in your will does not accomplish that. We see much confusion about this point among our clients and audiences when we give public presentations. Sometimes they then say something like: “ah, but we took care of that problem — we named our son as POD beneficiary” (or, sometimes, as joint tenant with right of survivorship). Great — no probate. Also — no trust. If you want your son’s money to pass in trust AND to avoid probate, you will need to talk about creating a living trust, not a testamentary trust. But that’s a lecture for another day.

Those were fun questions, but we’re out of time and space for this week’s newsletter installment. But keep sending them in — your questions help us decide where to focus our future articles. Please remember, however, that we are not here to give specific legal advice — we look for questions that raise larger questions that help us explain legal concepts for a lay audience. We hope we have helped you understand exactly why you need a lawyer for your more specific legal question.

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Failure to Distribute Estate On Time Leads to Damages Award

JULY 5, 2011 VOLUME 18 NUMBER 24
Family members sometimes assume that an estate will be ready for distribution within days or weeks of a death. Those familiar with the probate process usually appreciate that it is more likely that distribution will be between six months to a year after death — and sometimes longer. When the decedent established a living trust, though, survivors often expect the final distribution to be faster. Everyone has gathered for the funeral, including out-of-town children and grandchildren — shouldn’t there be a check ready to hand out while the whole family is together?

The reality is that administration of an estate, even when a trust is involved, can take much longer. A good rule of thumb: it may still take six months to a year to prepare final income tax returns, gather trust assets, liquidate those which need to be sold (and not all will need to be sold in most cases), make calculations and actually complete the distribution. If there are more complicated issues, like estate tax liability, it may take even longer.

Delay in distribution of a trust estate was the issue involved in a recent Indiana Court of Appeals case. Harrison Eiteljorg’s will had provided a trust for his widow, Sonja Eiteljorg. When she died in 2003, the trust was to be divided into two shares — one each for Harrison’s sons Nick and Jack. Nick, a stepson and Harrison’s accountant were the co-trustees.

The trust was large — it held about $13 million of assets. That meant that an estate tax return had to be filed, and taxes totaling $6.2 million paid (remember that in 2003 tax was imposed on estates greater than $1 million). That was accomplished by late 2004, but the trustees were worried about closing out the estate and distributing the remaining assets. What would they do if the IRS disagreed with their calculations of values and imposed an additional tax liability.

At a heated meeting between the co-trustees and the two sons, Nick demanded a partial distribution of $2 million (half each to himself and Jack). The other trustees declined, saying that they worried that additional tax of up to $2 million might be imposed, and a distribution as large as Nick wanted would leave the trust with too little cash if that happened. They proposed instead to distribute $1 million to the two sons. Nick and Jack left the meeting without agreeing, and both sides hired new lawyers to battle out the timing and amount of a distribution.

A few months later Nick and Jack filed a petition with the Indiana probate court asking for removal of the co-trustees and entry of a judgment against them. Their argument: there was no reason not to distribute the requested $2 million when demanded, and failure to do so breached the trustees’ duty to the beneficiaries. The trustees answered, arguing that they needed to retain substantial liquidity until the IRS finally accepted the estate tax return (or imposed additional tax liability, if that was to be the outcome).

About a year after their original demand for partial distribution, Jack and Nick secured an order from the probate judge requiring that $1.5 million be divided between them. The co-trustees complied. The court proceedings then shifted gears to address a two-part question: did the delay in distribution amount to a breach of fiduciary duty, and (if it did) what were the damages due to Nick and Jack?

The probate judge found that the delay did amount to a breach of fiduciary duty. Nick testified that he would have put his distribution into two mutual funds, and that it would have grown significantly during the months he was deprived of its use. Jack testified that he had planned to purchase real estate in Texas, and that it would have appreciated. In addition, Nick and Jack had incurred attorneys fees totaling $403,612.81.

Based on the damages testimony, the probate judge awarded Nick $156,701 in “lost” profits from the funds he could not invest in. Jack was awarded $112,046.77 in missed real estate gains. The remaining co-trustees were ordered to pay those amounts from their own pockets, as well as all but $50,000 of the attorneys fees.

The Indiana Court of Appeals had a different take on the case, and significantly reduced the damages award. First, two of the three appellate judges agreed with the trial judge that failure to distribute the funds earlier was a breach of fiduciary duty. Rather than giving Nick and Jack the profits they said they would have earned, however, the two judges limited their damages to the interest that the $1.2 million would have earned during the nine months it was delayed — and even that damage award was to be reduced by the amount of interest the money actually earned in the trustees’ hands. The appellate court also reduced the attorneys fee award to a total of $150,000 — what they called “a more appropriate assessment.” In the Matter of Trust of Eiteljorg, June 27, 2011.

One appellate judge would not have gone even that far. According to the dissenting opinion he authored, there was no breach of fiduciary duty. After all, he reasoned, the co-trustees offered to distribute almost exactly what was ordered a few months later, and Nick and Jack rejected the partial distribution plan. Retaining at least $2 million in liquid assets until the estate tax return had been accepted was a reasonable and prudent course, according to the dissenting opinion.

What lessons can we draw from the Eiteljorg case? Several come to mind:

  • Even with a trust, it may take months or years after a death to complete the administration and make final distribution. That is not the usual circumstance, but it can happen.
  • Although avoidance of litigation is one common goal of trust planning, it is not always effective. And the cost of probate or trust litigation can be significant — note that Nick and Jack incurred legal fees of about one-third of the total amount they sought as distribution, and that the question was not whether they were entitled to the money, but only when.
  • In addition to increasing cost, litigation can slow down the process. Here, the co-trustees were ready to make a significant distribution at the first meeting, but the court-ordered distribution (of almost exactly the same amount) was delayed for nine months.
  • Acting as trustee can sometimes be costly. The co-trustees in this case will be liable for at least $150,000 out of their own pockets. We can anticipate that Nick and Jack will object to any attempt to pay the trustees’ own lawyers from trust assets, or to pay any fees to the co-trustees.
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When Is a Living Trust More Appropriate Than a Will?

JUNE 6, 2011 VOLUME 18 NUMBER 20
Last week we answered a pair of questions from our readers and solicited others. Almost immediately we received an excellent question:

What are the factors you look at to determine if a client is best served w/ a will and durable power of attorney or a living trust? In other words, what are the key factors that would lead you to recommend a living trust?

Let us start with a quick disclaimer: the answer to this question is significantly different from state to state. What is true in Arizona may not be the same in other states — and some states will be wildly different. Even for lawyers in the same state there is significant difference of opinion; we are fond of saying that if you ask ten lawyers for their opinions you are bound to get at least fifteen strongly-held, well-reasoned views. Disclaimers aside, what follows is our take on the question.

We think most people do estate planning for one or more of these four reasons:

  1. To minimize taxes. Usually, but not always, that means estate taxes.
  2. To avoid probate, or (more broadly) to simplify matters for their heirs or successors.
  3. To control the way their assets are used after their death.
  4. To make it easier for someone to handle their affairs in the event of their own incapacity or disability.

Which does better at each of those tasks, a will and powers of attorney or a revocable living trust? In almost every case the trust will handle each of those tasks better than a will and powers of attorney. But that is not really the right way to address the question. Since trusts are somewhat more expensive to prepare (assume your lawyer will charge from three to ten times as much for preparation and “funding” of a trust as for a will and powers of attorney) and involve some extra effort, the analysis really becomes one of cost vs. benefit. Will the extra expense and effort of creating a living trust generate enough savings of time or money for heirs that it will turn out to be the right choice?

For most people, the answer is unclear. There are a handful of our clients for whom the trust is unquestionably the right technique, and another handful for whom the trust is not harmful but simply too much legal help for a problem that doesn’t exist. But most of our clients fit into the large middle ground — it would not be foolish of them to opt for a living trust, and it would not be foolish of them to avoid the expense and trouble now and let their heirs deal with it later.

So how do those four estate planning goals relate to the will vs. living trust question? Here’s what we think:

Taxes. Few people need to worry very much about estate taxes these days. With a federal exemption set at $5 million, and no Arizona state estate tax at all, only a tiny fraction of clients have estates large enough to make their decisions on the basis of tax effect.

It is true that the federal estate tax is scheduled to return to the $1 million level in 2013. It is also true that the Arizona legislature could decide to reimpose an estate tax (though most people think that highly unlikely). But for most people, even a taxation level set at $1 million would not make any difference in their planning.

But that’s not the end of the inquiry about taxes. Even if your estate is large enough for you to worry about estate taxation, there is no inherent tax benefit in living trusts. There used to be a way for married couples to lower their combined estate tax bill if their total estate was over the taxation level, but even that has changed (though of course it might change back in 2013). Bottom line: estate tax concerns simply do not drive the trust vs. will question in 2011 the way they did in, say, 1999. And if you are unmarried, or if you are married and your combined estate is less than about $1 million, you simply do not care about estate tax considerations.

Probate avoidance. Arizona’s probate process is not nearly as complicated as its reputation would suggest. It is also not nearly as expensive. Have you read stories about estates that have gone entirely to the lawyers because of a messed-up probate system? Yes, it does happen — but not really because of the system so much as because of family disputes over the validity of documents (including, increasingly, living trusts).

That said, most people will say that even a modest probate cost and time spent in lawyers’ offices would be something worth avoiding. What you need is a solid estimate of what it would cost to probate your estate if you relied on a will instead of a living trust, so that you can compare that cost to the cost of opting for a living trust. It is too hard to generalize about either expense, but we are prepared to go this far: in Arizona, the cost of preparing a living trust (and “funding” it — transferring all your assets into the trust’s name) will almost always be less than the cost of probating your estate later. But not necessarily by much.

There are some other points to be made here. If you own real estate in more than one state, your will must be probated in each of those states (unless you create a living trust or other probate-avoidance mechanism for some or all of those properties). That can drive the expense up considerably, and certainly complicates things for your family. On the other hand, if you have less than $50,000 worth of personal property and no real estate at the time of your death, no probate proceeding is likely to be needed anyway, since there is a “small estates” affidavit mechanism to avoid the probate process.

In general terms, larger estates tend to be more complicated to administer. More complex estates are better candidates for a living trust. So if you are wealthy, probate avoidance is more likely to be a concern for you — and especially if you have unusual assets, or real estate in multiple states, or other uncommon kinds of property issues.

One special consideration here: if you are married, you are probably comfortable putting most or all of your assets in “joint tenancy with right of survivorship” or designating your spouse as beneficiary. You might not feel the same way if you are single; it is not quite as easy (or advisable) to put your children or other beneficiaries on your bank and stock accounts as joint owners. So single people are usually better candidates for living trusts as a means of avoiding probate.

Control. We use the word advisedly. That’s what you might want to do with your funds, even after your death. Are you in a second marriage, with children from the first marriage, and a desire to provide for your spouse but ultimately pass most of your estate to those children? Maybe you have a spendthrift son (or a son who has married a spendthrift). Perhaps your daughter is disabled, and receiving government benefits she would lose if you left her an inheritance outright. Or maybe you want your money to be a retirement fund for your children, or to encourage your grandchildren to get an education, or some other laudable goal you are trying to achieve.

How can you address all of those issues? By putting your money in trust, with a trustee who has been instructed on how you want the money to be used.

You don’t have to create a living trust to put your money in trust. Instead you can create a trust in your will — what we lawyers call a “testamentary” trust. But it will cost you more, and the difference between the cost of a will (with your testamentary trust) and a living trust will shrink. So if you need (or just want) to control the uses of your funds after your death, you will be a better candidate for a living trust.

Your own incapacity. This is why you should sign a power of attorney. It is simultaneously one of the most important documents in your estate plan, and the single most dangerous one. But the cost of going through the courts (in a probate-like proceeding called a conservatorship) is almost always high and the invasion of privacy significant.

There are some times when a power of attorney just won’t solve the problem, though. Plus it is hard to predict when those times arise. Banks, title companies, the federal and state governments — none of them are required to accept the power of attorney. If you sign a living trust and transfer all of your assets to it, though, the problem becomes simpler and narrower: if your successor trustee can show the item the trust calls for (like a letter from your doctor, for instance), then the successor trustee just takes over. There will probably be somewhat fewer problems administering your affairs with a living trust than with a power of attorney.

We don’t want to overstate this benefit, however. It is almost never valuable enough to justify creating a living trust all by itself. As far as we are usually willing to go on this score is to suggest that, if one or more of the other categories make you a good candidate for a living trust, this one might put you over the top.

There’s one more category of living trusty candidates we can suggest: those who are more likely than others to (how can we say this gently?) “use” their estate plans in the next few years. In other words, the older you get the better of a candidate you become for a living trust.

So who should be considering a living trust as part of their estate plan? Look over the explanations above, and you will see that you are a better candidate for a living trust if you:

  • are older
  • are not married
  • are wealthy
  • have children who are not children of your spouse
  • have complicated assets, and especially if you
  • have real estate in more than one state
  • have beneficiaries with special needs, inability to handle money or other similar considerations

Again, we caution you against putting too much stock in these descriptions or applying them to your situation without good legal counsel. But look over this list of considerations and think about what they say about your estate planning needs. Share them with your own lawyer and ask for a thoughtful, critical evaluation. Your family and heirs will be glad you did.

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Benefits Eligibility Irrelevant in Lawsuit Over Trust Terms

FEBRUARY 6, 2011 VOLUME 18 NUMBER 5
What can a parent do to ensure continuing care for his or her adult child with a disability? That was the dilemma facing Californian Earl Blacksher in the late 1980s. His daughter Ida McQueen lived with him in the family home in Oakland. She was developmentally disabled, and she received Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments; she had no other resources and Mr. Blacksher’s own assets were largely limited to the home.

Mr. Blacksher signed a will. He directed that Ms. McQueen be allowed to live in the house for the rest of her life, and that the rest of his small estate be placed in trust to help her pay for the care and services that would be required to let her stay at home. He left his two brothers in charge of the estate and the testamentary trust he created.

After the brothers restructured the mortgage on the house, Ms. McQueen could live there on her SSI payments — just barely. When she became ill a decade later she moved temporarily to a nursing facility. With no resources to help pay for in-home care, and with escalating needs, she could not return to the home.

The attorney who had handled the probate in the first place had never been paid, since there was not enough money to take care of her bill. Neither had the brothers been paid for their work in handling the estate. Nor had the real property taxes on the home been kept current. It appeared that there was no choice but to sell the house, pay bills, and distribute any proceeds. The attorney assisted the trustee in listing and selling the house.

After all the bills were caught up there was $90,000 left to distribute. The attorney, apparently reasoning that Ms. McQueen had effectively abandoned her life estate interest in the home by failing to pay taxes and keep payments current, decided that nothing needed to be retained in Mr. Blacksher’s trust, and she arranged distribution of the proceeds to the remaining family members.

Almost immediately a conservatorship was begun to investigate the transaction, and a lawsuit was filed against several family members and the attorney who had arranged the sale and distribution. The lawsuit argued that the net proceeds should have been retained in trust for the benefit of Ms. McQueen. In response, the defendants insisted that it was reasonable to treat Ms. McQueen’s right to use of the house (or proceeds from its sale) as terminated, and that in any event any money she would have received would have simply interrupted her eligibility to receive SSI payments and subsidized care from California’s Medicaid program.

At trial two attorneys testified about the possibility of treating Mr. Blacksher’s trust as a “special needs” trust, which might have allowed Ms. McQueen to have the benefit of the sale proceeds without losing her eligibility for SSI and Medicaid. One expert opined that the option should have been discussed; the other pointed out that Mr. Blacksher’s trust did not qualify as written, and that California law would not have permitted a revision. Ultimately, however, the language of Mr. Blacksher’s testamentary trust was irrelevant — the trial judge precluded testimony about SSI benefits, and the jury found that most of the defendants had participated in taking money from Ms. McQueen. They were ordered to return $99,900 to Ms. McQueen.

One defendant — the attorney — was singled out by the jury for additional penalties. She was the only one the jury found liable for elder abuse, a separate claim under California law (and, incidentally, under the law of Arizona and most, if not all, other states). That did not directly increase the jury’s award against her, but it did have a significant additional effect. California law permits an award of attorneys fees against a party found liable for elder abuse. The attorney was ordered to pay Ms. McQueen’s lawyer’s fees, which totaled another $320,748.25.

The California Court of Appeal considered several arguments but ultimately upheld the judgment, including the effectively quadrupled award against the attorney. Key to the appellate court’s ruling was a finding that it was irrelevant whether Ms. McQueen received SSI or Medicaid benefits, or whether she would have lost those benefits if the terms of her father’s trust had been carried out as written. The judges were also unimpressed by an argument that the attorney acted reasonably in deciding, albeit wrongly, that failure to pay taxes or upkeep on the house effectively ended Ms. McQueen’s interest in the trust. McQueen v. Drumgoole, January 14, 2011.

The litigation involving Mr. Blacksher’s testamentary trust proves what every parent of a child with disabilities already knows: it can be very difficult to come up with a plan that adequately protects your child after your death. Mr. Blacksher’s trust may have been inadequate to the task, but it may be that the basic inadequacy was in the plan itself — there does not seem to have been enough money available to let Ms. McQueen stay in the family home after his death.

What might Mr. Blacksher have done differently? It is hard to be certain on the sparse record in the Court of Appeal, but there are a number of planning questions we might have asked Mr. Blacksher if we had a chance to speak with him before he signed his will, including:

  1. Does the testamentary trust language in your will adequately protect your daughter’s interest in the family home if it has to be sold? It appears that Mr. Blacksher’s will may not have done so — the trust he established may not have been a “special needs” trust.
  2. Do you have a realistic plan about how your daughter’s care can be provided? It appears from the outcome that there were not sufficient assets available to provide in-home care, even if health problems had not intervened to send Ms. McQueen to a care facility.
  3. If a move from the home is inevitable after your death, have you given adequate consideration to alternatives now? Might it be best to look into transitioning your daughter into a suitable placement while you are still able to participate in the selection and oversight of the care home?
  4. How involved — both in terms of time and in financial and other support — will the rest of the family be in caring for your daughter? Most parents recognize the high personal cost of providing full-time care. Did Mr. Blacksher’s family members realize that they would need to provide some of that care after he was unavailable, or did they realize it but lack the resources to do what he had done for years?

For lawyers, the key messages from the McQueen v. Drumgoole case are probably:

  • The “collateral source” rule, which prevents jury consideration of other payments available to the plaintiff in most civil lawsuits, applies in a case like this to prevent discussion of the SSI and Medicaid benefits a plaintiff might be entitled to receive — even if a successful verdict might eliminate those benefits.
  • The attorneys fees generated in complex litigation might all be chargeable against an unsuccessful defendant, even if not all of the claims (and all of the defendants) are found liable for any attorneys fee award.

For family members, though, the takeaway message is simpler:

  • Failure to plan realistically for your child’s care may result in a failed care plan.
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